EATING FOR BRITAIN: WATCHING WARRICK AT WORK
It would, of course, have been impossible to pass through Lancashire on my journey without going in search of two of its most famous dishes, The Lancashire Hot Pot and The Eccles Cake.
I had tried both before of course. The Eccles Cake is a staple dessert of St John served knowingly with a slab of Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese, while the Hot Pot is even something I have tried to make myself, drawn from the same culinary veins as Lobscouse, Irish stew and Welsh Cawl.
It would not have been hard to find the traditional take on either dish. A visit to Bury Market and to Harry Muffin’s stall would have seen me come away with both an Eccles and a Chorley Cake and just about every Lancastrian you bump into anywhere in the world has a recipe for Hot Pot. However, when I was offered the chance to have one made for me by one of the county’s best chefs, I leapt at the chance.
Warrick Dodds came to national prominence when he won Young Chef of The Year 2007. At the time, he was already well known in Lancaster for becoming the head chef at the starred and multi award winning Northcote Manor, under the tutelage of chef, Nigel Hawoth, at the ripe old age of twenty-four.
Now just thirty two and needing a break from fine dining, Warrick has transferred his talents to the kitchens of two excellent restaurants, The Sparling in Barton and The Sparling @ Lytham St Annes, where he has brought with him the passion for local dishes using many of Lancashire’s superb suppliers.
He had agreed to let me join him to spend an afternoon preparing these two most essential of Lancastrian dishes. When I arrived, just after a busy lunchtime service, Warrick took me back to the kitchens where he had prepared all the ingredients for my evening’s supper. While he brings a fine dining aesthetic and attention to detail to his work, Warrick’s new mission is to feed lots of people very well at a good price and it shows in his simple preparation of the Hot Pot.
Lamb shoulder and neck is diced, seasoned in salt and white pepper and tossed in flour. Onions are sweated off with a little sugar and then the two are layered in a bowl before being covered in a good chicken stock and then topped off with a layer of carrots and sliced potatoes that have been tossed in melted butter and a little chopped rosemary.
The cheffy touch came when Warrick produced a couple of cartouches to cover the top before adding a layer of foil and placing in a 160o oven for an hour and a half. After an hour, he removed the foil and cartouche, added one more layer of potato and allowed the top to cook for thirty minutes more to a perfect crisp.
While the Hot Pot was bubbling away in the oven, we turned our attention to my dessert for the night, Eccles cake. Here, again, Warrick’s take is a traditional one, but with a couple of twists. He makes his version with puff pastry and soaks his raisins in Earl Grey tea, lemon zest, orange zest, orange juice, sugar and grated ginger for an hour or so before forming the cakes in a shallow dish to give a consistent shape, knocking out and covering in sugar. He bakes them for around thirty minutes in a 180o oven.
Once both dishes were cooking, there was not much else to look at in the kitchen, so I went for a walk along the blustery seafront for an hour or so until it was time to head back to The Sparling for my supper.
First up, the Hot Pot. But, before I talk about that, a word about Warrick’s version of the traditional accompaniment, pickled red cabbage. It is simply the best I have tasted ever and that includes HP’s exemplary version. Made with three types of vinegar and sugar, it is sharp, crisp and sweet. He promised me the recipe. I will definitely share it when it arrives.
When the Hot Pot Arrived it looked the part, with a crisp top layer. I am normally no great fan of chef’s re-workings of classic dishes, but this was sensational. The layer under the crisp potatoes had softened in the stock to a fondant and the flour coating on the meat had created a soft, gentle sauce with perfect balance from the layered seasonings. I scraped the dish clean.
The Eccles cake can often be a challenging lump and the one at St John has defeated me on more than one occasion. Here, Warrick served with custard and the touch of a skilled chef meant that this potentially heavy dessert, while still hefty enough to challenge a serious appetite, was light and delicious with more layers of flavour.
Warrick, nervous of my opinion, popped his head out of the kitchen more than once to see how I was doing, but he need not have worried. There is a good reason why these dishes have endured. It is because they are simply fantastic, made with readily available ingredients and in their simplest form, very easy to prepare.
I am sure I shall give these a try back in my own kitchen and while I am not sure I can match his efforts, it was a great experience to watch them being prepared by Warrick Dodds, a chef who balances his undoubted chef skills with a true passion for the food of his home county.
Lancashire is definitely providing some of the highlights of my trip so far.